Today's article focuses on a discovery important to anyone who wants to stay healthy: If we deny and avoid our emotional pain, we run the risk of becoming physically ill.
The basis of this discovery is that what we think and feel has a direct impact on what goes on in our body. The mind and the body are not separate — they are an interdependent unit.
This fact has been known to the medical psychology community for some time. Fortunately, knowledge of the link between our psychology and our health is becoming more widely available.
Medical psychology research has shown that people who cannot or will not allow themselves to experience and express their emotional pain tend to be at increased risk for serious illnesses, such as heart disease and cancer.
One reason we have trouble feeling our pain and expressing it to others is that we feel a loss of self-esteem in doing so. This is because many of us have bought into false notions about what it means to be a healthy or strong person. They myth of the hero is a predominant one in our society. Its basic premise is that negative feelings and pain are a sign of weakness. And that keeping a "stiff upper lip" and "toughing it out" are signs of maturity, character and strength.
This notion is nonsense. Nature seems to be arguing that nothing could be further from the truth. The myth of the hero is a fiction that can be very dangerous if taken literally. Optimal levels of health and real strength and character demand that we simply accept what's going on in our own psychology. It takes a lot of moral courage, as well as friendship and generosity toward ourselves, to be with the truth of what we are feeling.
Too often, we feel shame or a loss of pride if we feel, for example, sad, depressed, lonely or frightened. Those of us who deny or avoid any negative feelings at all seem to be the most likely to become ill. If we can learn how to be open to what we are feeling and to express it to someone we trust, without undo fear or threat, then we will not only be better able to avoid illness, but we'll also be a lot happier.
Our immune system becomes weakened when we try to cover up our distress and pain. Studies at Southern Methodist University in Texas have shown that individuals who were encouraged and supported to express their emotions associated with traumatic experiences demonstrated an improvement in the function of their immune system. These people had less need to visit their physicians than did those who did not have the opportunity to express their feelings.
This finding supports many others that have shown that people who participate in psychotherapy have less of a need for medical services. Unfortunately, too often those who could benefit from therapy the most tend to avoid it because of their powerful fear of connecting to painful feelings.
A study done at Adelphi University in New York showed that people who denied their emotional distress had double the "flux" in their blood pressure and heart rates than those who could acknowledge their pain and discomfort. Because such flux can contribute to coronary artery disease, those who deny their emotions have a greater risk of cardiovascular illness.
If feeling and expressing our distress were taboo in our family of origin, we can have a difficult time in being open to what we are feeling. Unfortunately, we all tend to internalize the rules that were part of our childhood family systems.
These family "rules and programs" seem to have a life of their own and although appropriate to our past, they can create trouble for us in the present. It takes effort to become free from these family programs. But it is an effort worth making.
We now know that illnesses that tend to run in families are not just caused by an inherited biological predisposition to a particular disease. Family-linked illnesses can be related to a shared style of handling emotional pain and distress through denial and avoidance. If this is the case for us, then it is important that we try not to pass this style along to our children.
Although it is difficult to change our ways of handling what we feel, it can be done. Like anything else, we have to learn exactly how to be more open, and then we have to put what we learn to good use.
Emotional openness can become a natural part of who we are, and we can live a lot better and longer as a result.
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Dr. Jim Manganiello (www.drjimmanganiello.com) is a clinical psychologist and diplomate-level medical psychotherapist based in Groveland-West Boxford. He is also an author and teacher focusing on stress, personal growth, meditation and "inner fitness." E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.